Safeguarding Water Supplies

After a hazardous chemical spilled into the Elk River at Charleston in January, many people learned lessons about how to handle such an emergency. It appears both local government entities and the private West Virginia American Water Co. performed well during the disaster.

But more information before it occurred would have been extremely helpful. Had the chemical been a deadly one, a very large number of fatalities might have occurred. As it was, water service to about 300,000 customers was interrupted and many people sought treatment after becoming ill as a result of drinking tainted water.

State legislators approved a package of new regulations intended to guard against such spills in the future. But, beyond any reasonable doubt, there will be more.

This week, researchers at the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project recommended action in anticipation of future water-related emergencies. The group had been hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to investigate the January disaster.

WV?TAP suggestions were directed at private companies, municipalities and public service districts that supply drinking water to Mountain State residents. Researchers recommended utilities install early warning detection systems to safeguard against being surprised by hazardous substances in streams from which water is drawn to be treated and distributed.

They also recommended more research on the chemical involved in the January spill, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM.

Another recommendation may be the most important. WV?TAP suggests that utilities should obtain inventories of chemicals stored upstream of water intakes. Information including how the substances are stored, how long it would take them to flow downstream to water intake pipes and how to test water for their presence should be obtained.

Individual water companies and local government providers should not have to undertake that work on their own. Collecting it all would be very expensive and, in many cases, would involve duplication of efforts. Why should every town along the Ohio River have to do the same work?

State and federal governments should provide such inventories, for various reasons. One, of course, is that many chemical storage facilities are subject to government regulation. Officials already have much of the information required.

The WV?TAP recommendations are important – and, if followed, may prevent a major disaster with loss of life. State and federal governments should assume the burden of doing much of the work that is needed.